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On technological change, living better than our ancestors, and the advice from old money that still applies today
It seems hard to fathom, but the world will never be as simple in the future as it is today. The same is true for every passing day: Population growth, technological progress, economic advancement, and the relentless expansion of human knowledge conspire to make it inevitable that complexity will be an ever-expanding feature of the human experience.
■ Complexity by itself isn't a bad thing. Most sensible people wouldn't exchange the consequences of our current complexity for the problems of pre-modern life. Dying young, living without antibiotics or food refrigeration, and losing 2 out of every 5 children before the age of five are far worse than dealing with some tougher choices. But increasing complexity does require a conscious approach to decision-making.
■ A complex world calls for better heuristics. Four of them seem like good baselines for both public and private decision-making.
■ Make money. Most people want to earn a good quality of life for themselves and their families. This requires productive activity, and the best way to maximize productive activity is to reward it. Markets aren't perfect, but in general, market-based economies do a better job of that maximization than any other system. As voters, we should select for market-oriented policies, and as individuals, people should seek to do the most of what shows the biggest difference between what other people value and what we have to give up to produce it.
■ Have fun. The Declaration of Independence underlines "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as "unalienable rights". Life and liberty seem obvious enough, but it's worth taking seriously the promise that the pursuit of happiness is a human right. Some people can't help themselves but to be miserable. But they shouldn't bring the rest of the world down -- it is everyone's right to enjoy life.
■ Clean up after yourself. In the process of making money and having fun, it's easy to make a mess. When there are byproducts of human activities -- pollution, costs, impositions on neighbors and outsiders -- whoever creates those byproducts has a duty to clean up.
■ Mind your business. The phrase was applied to the first cent minted in America, at the behest of Benjamin Franklin. It's a delightful turn of phrase, reminding people both to "mind your own business" (leaving others, for instance, free to pursue their own happiness), and to tend to what matters, lest time get away leaving important work unfinished.
■ Progress is a long, unfinished marathon. Getting to a better future requires making good decisions along the way. The better the heuristics that guide us, the better the chances of steering towards a desirable future.